Let’s just forgo the usual apologies for tardiness and get right to it, shall we? The announcement that Obama is, if not scrapping, then at least reevaluating the current deployment plans for the missile defense shield is interesting in that it casts the upcoming talks with Iran in a new light. First, it reminds everyone that we actually need Russian cooperation to either leverage the Iranians into an agreement or make them suffer if they don’t play ball. For those who may have forgotten, Russia has a veto in the UN, which is the preferred venue for the delivering of useless bitchslaps sanctions.  However, as George Friedman writes, Russia actually has a number of very compelling reasons not to want to play ball.

The Near Abroad: Sure they’d rather not have a nuclear Iran that close to them, but on the other hand tangling with Iran keeps us nice and distracted from deepening our ties to aforementioned soviet republics. Russia has been undertaking diplomatic (and in some cases literal) offensives in what it terms as it’s “near abroad”; the now independent countries that used to be Soviet republics. This is being done for several reasons: first,  Russia has always been an expansionist power, as history has taught them (several times) that land can be traded for time when it comes to fighting for national survival. Second, they’ve always seen themselves as having “special privileges” in the territories that used to comprise the Russian/Soviet empires. Third, wanting to counteract the prevailing view in the West that Russia is worthless and has been slowly dying since The Fall. Fourth, needing to counter what they see as American/EU encroachment on these regions, with the better part of the Warsaw Pact having already fled for the EU and NATO and the rest, specifically Georgia and Ukraine, willing to sell their firstborns just to get in line. Combined with Bush’s idiotic initial plans for deployment of missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic and all this has combined to give Putin a serious case of foreign policy heartburn. And when he is displeased, cities tend to burn.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down: Related to Russia’s plans for its neighborhood is the desire to keep the US nice and distracted. With our involvement in Iraq winding down and our involvement in Afghanistan on somewhat winding up, keeping both the American diplomatic corps, or  better still the American military, tied up with engaging Iran keeps us from making overtures or even guaranteeing the independence of Georgia and the Ukraine, and thus allowing Russia to dominate them more effectively. And without the US defensive umbrella Europe would be as putty in their hands, as the EU lacks either the physical ability or the political will to defend itself from a Russian military threat, especially as softer forms of power have already proven rather effective. And even the news of the shield’s reconsideration is having Moscow’s desired effect of making Poland and the Czechs in particular and Eastern Europe in general doubt the effectiveness of the US military umbrella under Obama. In short, keeping the US as distracted as possible would allow Russian hegemony to more effectively flourish.

Step 3 –  PROFIIIT: Were negotiations to collapse and the US/EU to undertake unilateral sanctions Russia could make a fortune selling refined gasoline to Iran over land. Better still, were military action to be undertaken, the Iranians have stated they would mine the Straight of Hormuz, effectively sealing off the Persian Gulf to shipping and killing OPEC dead. The inevitable explosion of oil prices would make Russia, the largest non-OPEC oil exporter, richer than God.

In sum, Russia has more of an interest in our failure than our success, and this being the case Obama had to offer them a major inducement. Obviously this can’t be publicly stated to be the case, and the administration has some cover in that they seem to simply be trading anti-ICBM missiles in Poland for countermeasures more appropriate to Iran, both geographically and technologically. But this is still an enormous diplomatic risk for Obama as the Russians are under no obligation to back us up and a lack of support in the face of such a concession would basically destroy his Russia policy, further complicate relations with Eastern Europe, and add one more complication in the already Sisyphean task of dealing with Iran.

The other reason this news casts the Iranian negotiations in an interesting new light is pointed out by Joe Klein at Swampland:

We don’t know yet….but I’ve been thinking: The Administration’s agreement to talk with Iran, in the context of the P5+1 negotiations (that is, the United Nations permanent five plus Germany), also seemed a concession to Iran. But what if it wasn’t. What if it’s attempt to paint Iran into a corner?

Basically the thinking goes that instead of asking for an outright freeze of Uranium enrichment, the US/EU come down a bit and instead allow enrichment (as is Iran’s right under the NPT) under extremely rigorous IAEA oversight as the price. Were this to be rejected, then the missile shield shift and the PR gain of being able to say “well we tried talking” would increase the pressure on Russia to participate in a subsequent round of sanctions, especially if Obama follows this up by confirming everyone’s suspicions and also throws candy at the Chinese. My main concern is that even with Chinese support the Russians are the ones who will make or break any sanctions we attempt to place on Iran, and as listed above their interest in crippling us may well exceed their interest in crippling Iran.